Can the Showbox still be saved? What’s next for the iconic venue

Jun 25, 2019, 7:13 AM | Updated: 8:25 am

Showbox Market Seattle 620...

The Showbox Market in downtown Seattle. (Michael Simeona, KIRO Radio)

(Michael Simeona, KIRO Radio)

A recent ruling scuttled efforts to save the Showbox from demolition, leaving its owner free to proceed with plans to build a 44-story apartment building on the property. But is this really the end for the iconic music venue?

Supporters of preserving the 80-year-old music hall aren’t completely without recourse, even if the options they’re left with reside firmly in the “Hail Mary” category.

An appeal

The first, and most obvious step to take: For the city to appeal the ruling that struck down a temporary expansion of the Pike Place Historic District.

As SCC Insight’s Kevin Schofield noted in his own breakdown of the case, that would take some monumental legal gymnastics on the city’s part, given that the historic district expansion was struck down on four separate findings from King County Judge Patrick Oishi: An illegal spot zone, a violation of substantive due process rights, a violation of procedural due process rights, and a violation of the owner’s right to equal protection under the law.

Without getting too far into the weeds on the legal side, the short version is that an appeal is extremely unlikely to pass muster.

“In order for the Showbox ordinance to survive, the city must convince the Court of Appeals to overturn all four findings; if any one is affirmed, the ordinance is still dead,” Schofield outlined.

New legislation from city council

So, if an appeal is out of the question, how about new, less legally problematic legislation from the city?

In a statement published by Crosscut, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant said that last week’s “terrible ruling” was “not relevant to our upcoming legislation to permanently expand the boundaries of the Pike Place Market Historic Preservation District more comprehensively.”

A measure that “more comprehensively” expands the borders of the Pike Place Historic District would get around at least one finding from the recent court ruling.

At its root, zoning law typically holds that a city or municipality has to treat similar properties similarly. So one waterfront property, for example, would face the same zoning restrictions as other properties along the same section of waterfront.

Showbox spot zoning
The initial spot-zoning that got the city in hot water, when it attempted to expand the borders of the Pike Place Historic District

Generally, a single property within a swath cannot be easily plucked out for different zoning. When it happens, critics call it spot zoning — essentially what we saw with the Showbox.

Sawant’s proposal here would get around the spot zoning concerns by including other properties in the expanded district, but would still run into legal obstacles with the other three findings in Judge Oishi’s ruling.

Language from others inside city government has been less specific on next steps, with Councilmember Lisa Herbold stating only that she’ll “continue to work with the Council, the Mayor, the Law Department and others to explore our options.” Seven other city councilmembers have yet to respond to a request for comment.

An historic landmark designation

In early June, Seattle’s Landmark Preservation Board voted unanimously to move forward and nominate the Showbox to be an official city landmark. Sometime in the near future, the board will reconvene to confirm that nomination. As Historic Seattle’s Eugenia Woo correctly pointed out, though, “landmarking alone won’t save the Showbox.”

A city landmark designation comes with its fair share of caveats. First, and most significantly, the Landmarks Board is required to negotiate with the owner of a designated property, to agree on specific aspects of a building to preserve.

The city can sweeten the pot and offer “zoning variances, building code exceptions, and financial incentives,” but given that the Showbox’s owner, Roger Forbes, has an active lawsuit against the city he now stands to win, he has few reasons to cooperate with this process.

Buying the Showbox outright

The most feasible option is also the most expensive one: Getting a preservation-minded buyer to fork over millions to purchase the property.

Back in May, Historic Seattle offered to do just that.

“A building like that deserves to be saved,” Historic Seattle Executive Director Kji Kelly told MyNorthwest. “We feel like this in an opportunity to continue to invest in a property and save it for future generations.”

Exact dollar figures have yet to be brought up, but the organization expressed interest in “sitting down and negotiating” with Forbes to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.

In the weeks since that offer, Forbes has yet to directly respond, beyond a statement from a representative that he “has and will always consider any serious purchaser that offers fair market value for the property.” Some have estimated the starting point for any negotiation would be $40 million, the amount Forbes originally sued the city for in lost revenue, when it first blocked the sale and demolition of the Showbox.

Historic Seattle has yet to identify a source of funding for any such purchase.

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Can the Showbox still be saved? What’s next for the iconic venue